Earth First, Then Mars: An Interview with Kim Stanley Robinson

No writer has done more to realistically imagine the development of human life on other planets ...

No writer has done more to realistically imagine the development of human life on other planets than Kim Stanley Robinson. His landmark science fiction series, the Mars Trilogy (1993–1996), probes the biological, geological, and political ramifications of terraforming our red neighbor into a viable ecosystem. Robinson’s latest novel, Aurora, tells the story of a small group of 26th-century pilgrims who have boldly embarked on a multi-generational voyage to an earthlike moon. Where the Mars books ask whether humans should transform barren rock into a living, breathing world, however, Aurora questions whether humans could. Robinson’s prodigious imagination offers an urgent reminder that, like the colonists of his novel, we are all stuck together on a single starship: Earth.

Dave Haeselin spoke with Robinson in the lead-up to the 47th Annual University of North Dakota Writers Conference, where Robinson was a featured speaker on the theme “The Art of Science.” Here they discuss how Robinson’s latest novel fits with the rest of his work and thought, the first steps towards reforming university education to meet the challenges posed by climate change, and the possibility of a robot apocalypse.

Dave Haeselin (DH): Mars has been undergoing a renaissance lately, between the publication of Andy Weir’s The Martian (2011), NASA’s recent discovery of evidence of flowing water under the planet’s surface, and George R. R. Martin’s collection of “Old Mars” stories (2015), in which he laments that the “real Mars was simply not as interesting as its pulp predecessor.” How has the meaning of Mars changed for you in the years since the publication of your trilogy?


Kim Stanley Robinson (KSR): I would disagree with George about that. The real Mars is way more interesting than the pulp Mars, which was just a fantasy space, often swapped out with Venus or wherever. And we can have both now, in effect, because we still export a lot of dreams there. I think Mars is a great place to think about Earth, as a planet, and about society as a constructed thing we are still working on, with the idea we could improve it. In specific Martian terms, the idea that there might still be bacterial life on Mars was not there when I wrote my Mars books, and that is a game-changer if we take it seriously. Also, the presence of perchlorates in the soil, poisonous to humans, and the relative lack of nitrogen on Mars, are new findings that really complicate the idea of inhabiting the planet and terraforming it. These are not deal-breakers, but they are significant obstacles. However, even if slower, terraforming Mars remains a great long-term goal; but long-term meaning like ten thousand years. Which means we have to get our relationship to our own planet in order for anything interesting to happen on Mars.


DH: Given your interest in questioning the future of interstellar travel in your novels, how do you weigh the massive investments necessary for developing technologies for space exploration with the need for investment in so many other less fantastic but equally important research aspirations?


KSR: The main project for civilization now is creating a sustainable way of life here on Earth. That’s the necessary first step; anything beyond would rely on that succeeding, so exploring space is less important now. That said, space science is an earth science. What we learn around the solar system can often illuminate the project we have here of keeping this planet’s biosphere healthy. So I like the space program, and feel it is not funded out of proportion to its importance. Robotic missions are already doing a lot of what we need done, but humans are better at many things than robots, and it’s more exciting to see humans on the other planets than it is to see robots. So, on balance, I’d like to see more investment in space science and less in areas like weaponry. Our taxpayer bailout of the banker gamblers who lost their bets in 2008 cost us about ten thousand times the entirety of what we’ve spent on NASA.


DH: Timothy Morton has defined the Anthropocene as the moment of geological time marked by the “decisive human terraforming of the Earth as such.” I read Aurora, to some extent, as an anthropocentric revision of the utopian prospects of terraforming that you explore throughout the Mars Trilogy. How do you see the relationship between Aurora and the Mars books?

<i>Aurora Australis</i>. NASA on The Commons / Flickr

Aurora Australis. NASA on The Commons / Flickr

KSR: In Aurora I wanted to challenge the idea that humanity will be going to the stars. I wanted to suggest that it is physically impossible, and thus redirect our attention to the solar system, which in cosmic terms is our neighborhood, and maybe the only place we can ever inhabit. Once you redirect your attention that way, then it becomes obvious that Earth is the only place we can really thrive. Terraforming Mars, if possible at all, might take thousands of years rather than hundreds; this is the explicit commentary that Aurora makes on my Mars Trilogy’s timeline. I still think terraforming Mars is a great long-term project, just very long. So it will not serve to help us as any kind of “second home” while we get through the long emergency we are facing with the ecological problems here on Earth. Earth is the only home, and fixing our relationship with it is the only possible solution to the anthropogenic mass extinction event that we are in the process of starting.


DH: Given the scientific consensus that global warming is real, how can the American university system better equip graduates from all majors—the humanities, the arts, the applied sciences, and everything in between—to tackle the vast and varied problems facing us in the Anthropocene?


KSR: Good question. I think there should be a core sequence of classes every undergraduate has to take that combines physics, ecology, history, political science, philosophy, engineering, and economics into a composite study that prepares them to understand the problems we are facing as a civilization in the 21st century. I often think of my science fiction as attempting that gestalt, and my campus talks are often attempts to sketch out the necessary curriculum for such a core sequence. So they are pretty messy talks. Students in all majors will have a Big Project which is getting through the long emergency of inventing a sustainable civilization and dodging a mass extinction event. If regarded as such it might be energizing, and allow for lots of what universities call interdisciplinary collaboration.


DH: Your work is often praised for its willingness to troubleshoot exactly these kinds of big, hard problems. To what extent do you see science fiction as a tool that can help develop the reader’s ethical and social imagination?


KSR: I think science fiction is great at this, or it can be. There’s a lot of repetition and cliché, as in any genre, but by definition all the futuristic narratives of science fiction are ways of thinking about what’s to come and what we’re doing now to shape futures either good or bad. It’s like modeling exercises or scenario building, but in science fiction you also get stories, as well as what literature does better than anything, namely (to use science fictional terms) time travel and telepathy; it’s literature that gives you the best possible impression of what it was or will be like to live in other times and places. So it’s a kind of anthropology or sociology, but focused on people and feelings: fiction is the best tool we have for getting inside other people’s minds, how they feel, what they’re thinking—telepathy, in other words. Fictional but still very suggestive. So literature is immensely powerful, and science fiction is the future-looking wing of literature. It’s where the individual and the society are seen impacting each other as we go forward. So I think we are all science fiction thinkers much of the time.


DH: This is a question in the genre of the lifehack. Can you share any strategies for maintaining your curiosity and concentration in the face of unsorted and unprocessed information, what your characters in Aurora call “gigabytes of trivia”? How do you assure yourself that you are paying attention to the right kinds of things?

<i>NASA's Virtual Airport</i>. NASA on The Commons / Flickr

NASA’s Virtual Airport. NASA on The Commons / Flickr

KSR: It must come down to a matter of one’s philosophy or ideology, meaning one’s imaginary relationship to the real situation. Everyone has an ideology and philosophy, or, if not, they’re seriously disabled. So the question becomes how strong it is in its explanatory power: how much does it take in, how much can it help when it comes to questions of what to do, how to live? And how well can it be conveyed to others? So, looking to what the sciences tell us leads to some kind of existentialism, I think. We make whatever meaning there is. Individual happiness comes from health, and, because we’re social creatures, from helping others. Health, broadly regarded, means keeping the whole biosphere healthy, because we’re so interpenetrated with it. Something like the Leopoldian land ethic seems to emerge: what’s good is what’s good for the land. You’re happy when you’re healthy, and you’re only healthy when the biosphere is healthy (meaning all the other humans as part of that). That’s a kind of ethics, and then you have a politics and a guide to action. You have a project, and people need a project. Hopefully it’s a realistic utopian project, in that you’re trying to make things better for yourself and your people, who considered broadly are widespread indeed, right down to the bacterial level. It’s suggestive and can keep you on the hunt for the elements of a good life.


DH: In Aurora, you make the bold decision to tell much of the narrative from the perspective of the ship. To what degree has recent research into Artificial Intelligence inspired your depiction of Ship, or your understanding of the future of AI more broadly?


KSR: Possibly computer programs will be complex enough and computers fast enough that they might respond to us in ways that might pass the Turing test, but that’s a low bar. We are easily fooled, as we know because we do it to each other all the time. These talking computers will still be tools, and they won’t be conscious in the way human brains are, nor in a good position to act in the world—though as I say this I recall my AI in Aurora doing a fair job of controlling some actions in the ship. I suppose in that book I tried to think these things through to a limited extent, when imagining my ship’s AI telling the story, and then intervening to stop a civil war. But I was trying to imagine the consequences of a quantum computer, which we’re not sure we can build yet. That gave me license to imagine it as being far, far quicker and more complex than any computers we are likely to see in our time. That said, progress there is hard to predict. The main thing to say here is, they’re not the important thing; humans will still be deciding and making history, so we need to focus on that aspect of things. There will be no Singularity. We will remain the responsible parties when it comes to history.


DH: The characters you follow in Aurora eventually take up the mantra, “life is a planetary thing.” Ship struggles with the relationship of consciousness to its metal body. I wonder how these insights relate for you? Could AI doubters be thought of as “traitors to humanity’s reach” in the same way opponents of interstellar travel are in Aurora?


KSR: Yes, I think so. I sense that in asserting that humanity can’t inhabit the galaxy, much less the universe, and may only ever be healthy here on Earth, I’ve suggested a limitation that rubs some people the wrong way. They like to think of humans as transcendent, and once a religious afterlife is removed from consideration, the species going cosmic is the secular replacement for that religious yearning. Another place the yearning goes is into the space of the computer, with the idea we might someday download or upload our minds into artificial systems we’ve built, and concoct some kind of immortality. I think that’s a very bad misrepresentation of what we know about brains already, a kind of fantasy, or maybe I should just say bad science fiction. There’s a lot of bad science fiction, and a lot of it is harmless entertainment, but then there is the example of Scientology, and the frozen heads scam, to show what happens when people take bad science fiction too seriously. So I think it’s okay to look at these new stories, already clichés in our collective imaginary, and point out that some are good (health for all, permaculture, utopia) and some are bad (escaping Earth’s problems by way of impossible transcendences of various kinds). Distinctions can be made, and, also very important, new stories can be told. And new stories are fun. icon

Featured image: Pioneer 10. NASA on The Commons / Flickr